Interview with Peter Halley
It's early morning in New York when artist Peter Halley invites us to interview him via Zoom. The 68-year-old New Yorker counts amongst the greatest internationally known artists – in no small part because his early works seem almost prophetic in retrospect.
Halley long foresaw the digital revolution and the transformation of our social spaces in his art. His work, which many associate with minimalism and neo-conceptual art, is exhibited internationally by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Tate London, and the Guggenheim.
The lobby of the "Estrel" hotel features two special works by Halley. They are site-specific pieces created for the grand lobby of the hotel, a collaboration rising from the long friendship between him and the "Estrel" owners Sigrid and Ekkehard Streletzki. Halley's masterpieces for the hotel can be seen as a tribute to the "two-faced" sculpture by British sculptor Tony Cragg, which also stands in the hotel lobby. Many are surprised that Halley had his work hung above a monitor, yet this location is ideal because a monitor provides the connection to the digital world that the exceptional artist's work is all about.
What drives and defines Peter Halley as an artist? This and more is revealed in an in-depth conversation with the "Estrel" magazine.
Mon Muellerschoen: Dear Peter, your art is very conceptual. Colors play a big role. More than 20 years ago I stood in front of your paintings for the first time and, to be honest, I didn't understand them. Only with the digital developments of the past few years, the Internet, smartphones, have I come to understand your art more. I have been in constant awe at how visionary your work has been since the 1980s. Although many critics say your art has hardly changed, I find it has intensified, for example in terms of color – just like digital progress.
Peter Halley: Yes, that’s true. In the 80s, when I started painting like this, I said to myself that the fundamental nature of space in the world we've built is a series of connections terminals that are connected via linear networks with other terminals, just like you might get in a car on a highway or when you pick up a telephone and have a line to someone else. That is the space that I represent in all of my paintings, and that is also basically how we’re connected in the digital world, via computers and devices. The color in my paintings from back then is mostly fluorescent, dayglo color. That kind of bright artificial color is characteristic of this high-tech world that I was living in in the 80s. With computers and iPhones, I realized that it was also a good way of representing the world of the digital screen, with its intensely saturated and bright colors.
MM How has the pandemic influenced your work? You once mentioned in an interview that much of today's society is digitally locked in. In the last year and a half, many of us have become not only digitally locked in but physically locked in as well. Has that changed the way you think, see and paint?
PH Not exactly. It actually kind of reinforced it. People were seeing less of each other and were less in physical contact. This whole issue of how the internet and digital communication has affected us during the pandemic is, for the most part, yet to be explored. To some extent, you can think of the internet as having been planned for a pandemic, as it allows people to communicate without being in physical contact with one another.
MM You always address the alienation of life in the modern age, and now reality has caught up with you.
PH In part, but I felt long before the pandemic, with everyone looking at their phones and with students at Yale talking to their long-distance relationships via facetime, hundreds of miles away, that it was already a big part of contemporary life.
MM Not only has the way you use color changed but the cells and prisms you've been working with have started to move, vibrate and pulse more. They are leaving their "baseline" now. It's like an energy field, more like a whole installation - than a single painting. I found that very fascinating, and it seems to be a sign of our times.
PH Thank you, that’s very complimentary. I do feel that my paintings are less limited by gravity and more unstable and have a kind of pulsating composition. That is something I have begun to develop in the last few years.
MM How would you define your sense of space?
PH The central space in the paintings? In my works there exist geometric figures, these rectangular shapes that I call prisms when they have a window, and cells when they don't. My paintings are about the interactions between these codified shapes and how they're connected and distributed on the canvas. It's a kind of mapping, and psychological themes also come into play.
MM Can you describe a day in your studio for me?
PH My paintings always start with a drawing or composition. Since the mid-90s I’ve drawn on the computer, which changed the way I work because it became so easy to change the proportions and dimensions or add and remove things. That gave me a great deal of flexibility for composition and experimentation. I then take that outline drawing, print it on a smaller piece of paper, around 50 centimeters, and start making a color study. I spend a few days or weeks working out the color of the painting. This drawing then becomes the template for the large painting that is created in my studio, where I have two full-time artists working with me.
MM Are you a fast or slow worker? How long does it take you to go from initial thought to finished product?
PH My paintings consist of two phases: the study, which can take a day or several weeks, and the production of the painting, which is more artisanal and subject to physical constraints. This takes two or three weeks. People generally don't realize how much craftsmanship the paintings require. Each line consists of more than fifty layers of paint, and every five layers those lines have to be taped off and taped back on. It's a very laborious process.
MM When I think about the surfaces of your paintings, they are quite different. Sometimes they look like building wallpaper or like a tapestry.
PH Or like a stucco.
MM Exactly. But I never see a brushstroke or a personal touch, even when I get close. They seem almost machine-like. Do you intentionally try to avoid that personal touch?
PH Yes. My paintings are created by the mind and not the hand, and the work done with the hand always seems very transient to me. I do like hand-done paintings, but my preference is to do something where my personal touch doesn’t affect the work.
MM Which artist has had a major influence on your work?
PH I grew up with Andy Warhol. He had a huge influence on my art, and I studied his work extensively as a teenager.
MM Did you meet Warhol in person?
PH He made a portrait of me towards the end of his life. But I was also influenced by Ellsworth Kelly and a lot of other painters, mostly American. All of them were interested in getting rid of the importance of their signature in their work. That influenced me.
MM That's very interesting, because like you, Warhol was a visionary with his work. You show us the social structures we live in in your work, and I think Warhol would love the attention he could get through Instagram and social media. There's a sense that you both knew all this before it happened. Your images from the early eighties seem tailor-made for today.
PH I paid attention to what was going on around me from early on. I certainly learned a lot from the French writers of the 1970s like Baudrillard and Foucault and Lyotard, who described postmodernism, and it seemed pretty clear to me what was going on. But I wasn't the only one who thought that way!
MM What are your plans for the future? What's happening in 2022?
PH My next big exhibition is in early 2023 in Luxembourg at MUDAM. It will be a retrospective of my early paintings from the eighties. I'm looking forward to the reactions of the public, especially the younger people.
MM Speaking of younger people, you've always been involved in teaching, whether as a professor or in other ways. Do you see yourself as a mentor?
PH That's the nature of my personality. I was the director of the painting program at the Yale Graduate Program from 2002 to 2011. The school attracted the best young artists, and many of them have done very well since then. I stay in touch with a lot of them; it's a big part of my life.
MM That's nice. Are there any young German or even Berlin artists you know or keep an eye on?
PH I have an old friend in Berlin whose work is fantastic. His name is Peter Klare, an artist I respect a lot and met 25 years ago. He was studying at UCLA in Los Angeles at the time.
MM Socrates said that the secret of change is not to spend all your energy fighting the old but to build the new.
PH I would say the secret to change is to do the same thing over and over again. People have always said that my paintings are always the same. I find that ironic. If you think of Cezanne, who painted the same mountain over and over again, that was his way of finding meaning and innovation in his work. I feel the same way about my work with its limited vocabulary. It's an arena for inspiration.
MM I'm going to leave it at that. But I don't think it's a limited vocabulary, it opens up a lot in me and it's been so interesting to see how your art has evolved. I can't wait to see your next exhibition live in Luxembourg. Thank you very much for the interview!
Interview by Mon Muellerschoen,
art historian and founder of MM-Artmanagement